Ulster Rugby charge towards top sport
Published 10/01/2014 | 09:30
A day after Ulster had sent Treviso packing in mid-December's previous round of Heineken Cup games and all was well as Luke Marshall settled down to savour his well-earned Sunday lunch.
He and the squad had hot-footed back from northern Italy after their 35-3 triumph had brought Ulster the maximum haul of points from their back-to-back clashes with Treviso and Mark Anscombe's side were rightly feeling good about being at the top of Pool Five.
So, all seemed well as Marshall got ready to sit down to eat and then things began to look even better as Montpellier's clash with Leicester Tigers at Stade Yves du Manoir – the place where Marshall et al had demolished the French in October – was panning out just as Ulster had wanted with the hosts looking to be heading towards victory. But then, in the game's final play, Vereniki Goneva got himself over the Montpellier line and up stepped Ryan Lamb to bisect the posts with the vital conversion to give last season's Premiership champions a highly dramatic 15-14 victory.
Marshall could hardly believe what had happened. Instead of being on the cusp of guaranteeing finishing top, Ulster now had acquired some unwanted close company at the summit of their pool.
By winning, the Tigers had planted themselves a mere three points behind Ulster with two pool games to play and, with the English side widely expected to win at Treviso tomorrow, the group decider was already shaping up to be the day Anscombe's squad visit Welford Road on the final weekend of games before the knockout stages.
The result certainly brought Marshall back to terra firma, regardless of the culinary wonders of his lunch that day.
"I was nipping in and out to see what was happening," the 22-year-old Ireland international recalls.
"I saw Montpellier leading in the last couple of minutes and I thought 'they've done us a real favour here' and then I nipped back in just in time to see a Leicester score right at the end."
His initial disbelief soon morphed into disappointment and then a nagging frustration over what had occurred and how much harder it had made things for the squad after all their previously notable graft throughout the competition.
"Yes, it was annoying as we were sitting four from four and the only unbeaten team in the competition and even though we've won them all we're still not guaranteed anything.
"So we'll have to win all our games now which is sort of frustrating in a way," he says before finding a more pragmatic line to close the subject. "But that's the way it is in this competition."
Now, it looks like two more wins required to seal the deal by topping the group, never mind also bagging that elusive home quarter-final.
Ulster did top their pool last season but hadn't done enough to avoid travelling to Twickenham where they exited at the hands of 'home' side Saracens – so there's nothing else for it than to roll up the sleeves and get down to producing some more effective work.
And Marshall doesn't try to avoid addressing what is needed against Montpellier tonight as he charges straight to the heart of the matter just as he does on the field.
"We have to prepare like it's a knockout game for us, win or die basically," is his take on the Montpellier game.
"If we go and lose against them, which if we don't perform could easily happen, the Leicester game puts a whole lot more pressure on us.
"We've got to make it easier for ourselves by winning this first one," he adds before addressing the notion that the French could be somewhat disinterested now that they cannot top the group.
"They've lost seven of their last nine or something like that," Marshall throws into the mix, but then makes it clear that this statistic has little actual meaning for Ulster.
"That's the thing with French teams," the hard-running centre says. "You don't know what team is going to turn up and previous form doesn't really matter as they could still turn up and be brilliant."
And though Ulster swatted the French aside in their own backyard back in October – probably the squad's most complete performance of the season so far – this too has little bearing on where Ulster are now as was seen in last week's slog to ultimately resist Munster's strong comeback.
Marshall, though, has no doubts how important beating the PRO12 leaders was in the lead-in to this week.
"Last Friday was about proving ourselves and getting our confidence back by beating Munster," he says.
"I think it was a good way to lead into Montpellier as Munster are so strong up front and we know one of Montpellier's strengths is their big pack," he adds.
Ulster were certainly put under pressure by Paul O'Connell and his cohorts in Munster' forward unit – they scored two of their three tries from lineout mauls – but while much work has been done to address this facet of play, one area where matters did look rather more promising came from another positive outing for Marshall and Darren Cave in midfield.
"I think myself and Darren have played seven or eight times this season so we're getting to know each other pretty well and it makes it a lot easier when you know what the guy outside you is going to do," he explains.
"I've run off his shoulder a few times and he's run off mine," he says about their attacking plays. "And I think defensively we're looking strong as a unit.
"It gives you confidence when playing alongside someone you know."
And with that he offers his ideal scenario for how the game will hopefully pan out.
"If we start well against them and get points on the board early then maybe the fact they're out of the competition will hopefully frustrate them," he says.
Whatever way it unfolds, anything other than a winning outcome doesn't bear thinking about.